Journalism groups sue Wisconsin Justice Department for names of every police officer in state

By TODD RICHMOND Associated Press

MADISON, Wis., (AP) — Two groups of investigative journalists tracking police misconduct have filed a lawsuit in the hopes of forcing the Wisconsin Department of Justice to divulge the names, birthdates and disciplinary records of every officer in the state.

The Badger Project and the Invisible Institute filed the lawsuit last Thursday in Dane County Circuit Court after the Justice Department refused to release most of the data, citing officer safety and calling the request excessive.

“DOJ’s denial is not legally sufficient to outweigh the strong public policy favoring disclosure,” the journalism groups argue in the lawsuit. “The public has a heightened interest in knowing the identities of those government employees authorize to employ force – including lethal force – against the populace.”

Justice Department spokesperson Gillian Drummond didn’t immediately respond to a Wednesday email seeking comment. Neither did James Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the state’s largest police union.

According to the lawsuit, the groups filed an open records request with the Justice Department in November seeking the full name of every officer and extensive information about each, including birth date, position and rank, the name of their current agency, start date, previous law enforcement employment history and disciplinary record.

Paul Ferguson, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Open Government, responded in April with a list of officers who have been decertified or fired, or who resigned in lieu of termination or quit before an internal investigation was completed. He also supplied the journalism groups with a list of Justice Department special agents. Ferguson redacted all birth dates and positions, however, in the interest of preventing identity theft and protecting undercover officers.

Ferguson also wrote in a letter to the groups that their request was excessively burdensome, noting that about 16,000 law enforcement officers work in Wisconsin. He wrote that the Justice Department would have to contact each of the approximately 571 law enforcement agencies in the state and ask them to determine what information should be redacted about their officers. He added that the Justice Department doesn’t keep disciplinary records for officers.

The groups argue that Wisconsin’s open records law presumes complete public access to government records. Police officers relinquish certain privacy rights and should expect public scrutiny, they maintain.

Journalists around the country have used similar data to expose officers with criminal convictions who landed jobs with other law enforcement agencies, and the information the Wisconsin Justice Department released is insufficient to meet the needs of the groups and the public, the plaintiffs contend.

The groups say the agency hasn’t explained how releasing the information they requested would endanger any officers, noting they are not seeking officers’ home addresses.

Reviewing the data for potential redactions may be “labor intensive,” but the Justice Department is a massive agency with hundreds of employees, the groups argue. The agency should be expected to handle large record requests since police oversight is so important, they say. As for checking with individual departments on redactions, the agency “cannot outsource the determinations for its own records.”

The Invisible Institute is a Chicago-based nonprofit journalism production company that works to hold public institutions accountable. The organization won two Pulitzer Prizes earlier this month. One of the awards was for a series on missing Black girls and women in Chicago and how racism and the police response contributed to the problem. The other award was for “You Didn’t See Nothin,” a podcast about the ripple effects of a 1997 hate crime on the city’s South Side.

The Badger Project, based in Madison, describes itself on its website as a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism organization. It won third pace in the Milwaukee Press Club’s online division for best investigative story or series for a series on active Wisconsin police officers joining the far-right Oath Keepers group.